While President Sarkozy may be conveniently posturing as an advocate for women’s equality when it comes to the burqa, he has been less than attentive to less sensational feminist causes
It has been a popular week for the burqa. On June 22, French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his support for dozens of French legislators proposing a complete ban on the burqa, saying: “the burqa is not a religious sign; it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement” and that “it would not be welcome in the French Republic.”
Mere days before Sarkozy’s pronouncement, in a courtroom across the Atlantic, the Michigan Supreme Court decided in favour of amending a court rule that would allow judges to dictate courtroom attire and allow them to order women wearing the niqab to remove the covering while testifying in court. At the same time, viewers across the world watched Iranian women in various forms of veiling, from handkerchief-styled hijabs to fully encompassing black chadors, erupt in protest on the streets of Tehran.
The issue of covering and uncovering, when the state can enforce it or ban it, what it curbs and what it promotes, and the consequent images as vendors of barbarism or liberation has thus become a corollary to politics in these otherwise disparate portions of the globe. In fact, few issues illustrate the cumbersome weight of global politics brought into inordinate and often disjunctive proximity as the burqa.
Little effort thus is expended in unravelling the dimensions of the burqa as a secondary symbol that bears within it complex dynamics that have little to do with commitments to the emancipation of women and much to do with using women’s bodies as a illustrative landscapes for varying political agendas.
Take first the French case. The “burqa blinds”, argued many French commentators digging their feet against the burqa. Their statements aren’t surprising. France has already banned the “hijab” and headscarf in public schools and refused citizenship to an otherwise eligible woman simply because she chose to wear the burqa. Yet to interpret French disdain toward the burqa as a standalone icon of its commitment to women’s liberation would be grasping a mere fraction of the hijab saga as it unfolds in France.
While President Sarkozy may be conveniently posturing as an advocate for women’s equality when it comes to the burqa, he has been less than attentive to less sensational feminist causes. French feminists have long decried the President’s failure to support initiatives that help women, including the failure to establish a ministry of women’s affairs and refusing to meet with groups helping women who are victims of sex-trafficking rings.
The feminist façade is not the only hole in the French case against the burqa. As is well known, France’s nearly 10 million Muslims have trouble getting jobs and have an unemployment rate nearly three times those of Caucasian French. Unemployment, gang warfare and crime are rampant in the banlieues where many of them live. Nearly 60 to 70 percent of the French prison population is Muslim. Yet for all of France’s commitment to liberty and equality, governments over the years have failed to endorse any form of affirmative action programmes that would uplift the community or promise any special assistance to those French Muslim children who seek to escape a life of degeneracy.
Taken in light of this specific context then, the veil becomes not an effort by an individual Muslim woman to become invisible under a black shroud but rather a purposeful effort to make herself politically visible before a system that denies her existence. The burqa in its very capacity to shock and force attention, especially in western contexts, is an exercise in visibility rather than invisibility; an effort to draw attention to an ignored political existence that the French have repeatedly decried has no claim to recognition.
The ruling of the Michigan Supreme Court presents its own contextual complexities. It is worthy of note that the particular petitioner Ginnah Muhammad is an African-American Muslim and not an immigrant. The lawsuit was brought in response to a suit she filed against a rental car company in a small claims court. The judge at the small claims court asked her to remove her niqab and she refused to do so. She argued religious necessity and he argued that the jury could not assess the veracity of her testimony without being able to see her face and dismissed the case for her failure to remove the niqab.
The Michigan Supreme Court this past week ruled that a judge is allowed to dictate a witness’ courtroom attire within reason to enable juries to assess their facial expressions.
The limitations of the Michigan case must be noted. In the larger American context, any form of public religious expression is permitted, including hijab and niqab. No Muslim American school children are expelled from school because of any attire they choose to wear; in fact Muslims are legally permitted to establish schools that receive state funding provided they meet government standards of instruction. Muslim Americans are largely middle class and live not in ghettoes but rather in suburban communities around the country.
The Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling then is a limited one that reflects the unjustified discomfort of a midwestern court system with a woman that covers her entire face. It is however a classically American civil rights battle which pits difference and individual civil rights against institutionalised legal norms. In terms of political groupings it places the orthodox Muslim woman wearing a niqab on the same side of the fence as gay rights groups, nudists and others, all of whom are battling state incursions on individual freedoms of self and religious expression.
Finally a word about Iran, since the images of chador- and burqa-clad women forced to cover by a vast state orthodoxy enables and informs impressions of the burqa in the West, even when the contextual arguments are vastly different. Images of Iranian women covered and yet protesting are again illustrations of how misdirected the debate over veiling is.
It is worthy of note thus that both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mirhossein Moussavi support the covering of women. The promise of change for Iranians is not a promise of freedom from the state-enforced chador. The issue of covering as a political denominator is here too ensconced in its complexities; women’s bodies, both covered and uncovered, thus are part of a political mosaic that goes beyond them; the only common theme being their perpetual use and misuse as sites of political spectacle.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at
Denying women the option to veil themselves may provide France with a vision of a progressive Islam, but it will compromise the reality of Muslims in Europe. File Photo
From Fata to France, the question of what differentiates moderate from extremist Islam is being settled on the bodies of women. Using women as a litmus test for whether a certain interpretation of religion is ‘acceptable’ is one of the worst things that can happen to women’s rights.
This is especially true if the indicator is women’s clothing, as nothing can be a more superficial gauge of either emancipation or religiosity. Indeed, there can be no doubt that the struggle for women’s liberation and religious moderation is a long-term effort that will require systemic social change. What, then, is all the fuss about?
Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ruffled many a headscarf when he lashed out against burkas. He framed his remarks as an issue of women’s rights, rather than religious tolerance. By describing burkas as a sign of ‘subjugation’ and ‘submission’ that deprive women of their identity and hinder social participation, he cast the garments as a cultural tool of male oppression (rather than a religious expression). Seeing is believing, his simple logic suggested: if a woman looks liberated, she must be liberated.
Now, a national commission backed by 58 members of parliament, many of whom are from Sarkozy’s rightwing UMP party, are conducting a ‘burka probe’. If investigations suggest that women are being coerced into covering themselves, burkas will be banned in France to protect women and ensure their equality.
The problem is, Sarkozy’s women’s lib argument holds no water. The 2004 ruling that banned ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols including headscarves from French classrooms forced many Muslim girls to leave the public secular school system and enroll in Islamic schools where they could continue wearing hijabs. A ban on burkas will similarly confine women who veil themselves to their homes. Rather than boost social participation, integration and equality, French legislation on Muslim women’s clothing will further marginalise them. In a secular state such as France, where human rights are privileged, this outcome should be seen as counter-productive.
One is also discomfited by Sarkozy’s throwback to colonial posturing. His brash attempt to ‘save’ Muslim women from their barbaric, overbearing husbands and fathers is paternalistic, eerily recalling the we-meant-best rhetoric that stemmed from the ‘white man’s burden’.
Many have also pointed out that Sarkozy’s absolutist rhetoric resembles the very extremism it aims to counter. In Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, women have been forced to wear burkas a practice that has been widely denounced. But how can its flipside forcing women not to wear burkas be any better? The argument that the state cannot tell a woman how to dress is equally valid in the Muslim world and the West.
As such, everything about Sarkozy’s burka-bashing seems ridiculous. Given that only about 100,000 women out of France’s total population of five million Muslims wear burkas, it also seems unnecessary. Can such a minority merit the attention of the French parliament when the country as a whole is still wrangling with the problem of how to integrate Muslims into mainstream French society? Is it possible that the feisty Frenchman’s burka fervour is really directed at something else?
Soon after Sarkozy condemned burkas, Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of France’s Representative Muslim Council, expressed support for the president’s stance and declared that his group was investing in promoting a moderate version of Islam. Moussaoui’s comments indicated that Sarkozy’s decision to raise this point had less to do with the social politics of the burka per se, and more to do with which western power decides what interpretation of Islam will be acceptable to the West.
It is no coincidence that Sarkozy spoke out against burkas soon after US President Barack Obama delivered his historic address in Cairo. In that speech, Obama hit out at European countries that are dictating how Muslim women should dress and warned against disguising “hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism”. Sarkozy’s critique of the burka, then, is a way to push back against Obama, making it clear that France will deal with Islam on its own terms, not America’s.
Indeed, the burka issue gets at the heart of a longstanding tussle between the US and France. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Howard LaFranchi points out that the difference between the two countries’ approaches to notions of freedom 'comes down to one of ‘freedom to’ versus 'freedom from'. While the US defends a woman’s right to dress as she likes, France wants to ensure women’s freedom from coercion and subjugation. In the former approach, individual liberty is elevated; in the latter, the state as protector bears the burden of responsibility. This arm-wrestling between the US and France over concepts of freedom is centuries old, and is now taking place on the backs of Muslim women because the greatest challenge the West currently faces is its engagement with Islam.
Whichever nation sets the boundaries for what constitutes ‘moderate’ Islam will emerge victorious, at least for now.Of course, this could also be a case of petty personal politics. Sarkozy and Obama are both charismatic, ‘rule’-breaking, superstars with a penchant for the limelight. At the G20, Nato and EU summits earlier this year, Sarkozy was publicly perturbed at being overshadowed by Obama he even went so far as to declare that the US president was inexperienced and thus not 'up to standard'. Post-Cairo, France’s favourite troubleshooter probably wants to ensure that he is not eclipsed by Obama.
It would be best if western powers left Muslim women’s clothes out of their lovers’ spats. Denying women the option to veil themselves may provide France with a vision of a progressive Islam, but it will compromise the reality of Muslims in Europe. After all, banning burkas does not address the real issues that continue to hinder the progress of Muslim women the world over access to education, political representation, job opportunities, vulnerability to domestic violence and more. In the near future, when military operations in Pakistan’s tribal and northwestern areas end, it will be time to invest in social and economic development. International donors have already implied that bolstering women’s rights while respecting tribal mores will be of utmost importance.
One hopes that the Pakistani government can learn a lesson from the fallacies of the French and instead take a page from Obama’s Cairo address. Let the chador be. Instead, emphasise female literacy, fiscal independence through micro-finance, equitable healthcare and freedom of movement. Looking the part is the least important aspect of being liberated.